There is nothing I love more than sitting with a pile of books, new arrivals at the beginning of a new year and making a start.
I file books that have arrived by month of publication and sometime at the beginning of each month I sit and read the first twenty to thirty pages of each. I will have filtered out those that really aren't my bag, shelved the possibles, left in a few surprises, or books that the blurb really is 'bigging' up to such an extent that I have to at least look and see what all the fuss is about... but those books have to work a lot harder.So it was going to be an uphill task for The Night Guest by young Australian author Fiona McFarlane.
'Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, 'Tiger.' That was natural; she was dreaming. But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them. They came across the hallway from the lounge room. Something large was rubbing against Ruth's couch and television...other sounds followed : the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent...'
Ruth, a widow living alone in an isolated beach-side house in the dunes of Australia, immediately reaches for the phone and calls her son Jeffrey in New Zealand. Ruth already knows, from the 'funny mirror of Jeffery's face' when she had said something 'unusual' during their recent visit that he, and her other son Philip, are worried about her.
By page thirty, when by my own rather strict rules I am supposed to stop and put the book either on the Definite Pile, or the Maybe Pile, or the No Hope Pile, I have learned that Ruth has cats for company, suffers with excruciating back pain and is living a life of confused and eccentric but benign chaos and, as if walking out of the waves...'blown in from the sea' has come Frida to look after her.
'The government sent me...you were on our waiting list and a spot opened up...'
In fairness alarm bells rang initially for Ruth as well as for me and Jeffrey. But Jeffrey's return phone call to check up on his mother is all too deftly handled by Frida...
'An hour a day to start with. It's more of an assessment, just to see what's needed and we'll take things from there.
'This could be wonderful, Ma,' said Jeffrey. 'This could be just exactly what we need, What a good, actually good use of taxpayers' money.'
And with that the enigmatic Frida, a woman who, as she approached the house had 'filled up a little more of the sky with every step' is about to enter Ruth's life and mind and fill it in every possible way.
Now I'll admit this book may not be to everyone's liking, but when I said to myself 'Right, go on then...put that on the Maybe or the No Hope Pile' I absolutely couldn't.
What follows becomes increasingly sinister and hopelessly compelling as the cogs of Ruth's memory start to slip and slide, her neural pathways leading to all the wrong places whilst the readers' head to all the right and very frightening ones with the slow dawning realisation of what is happening.
With her understanding of the diminishment of memory, Fiona McFarlane delves deep into the mind of a confused person, making many of Ruth's erratic decisions seem plausible and logical. The day Ruth grabs her purse and heads for the bus, it proves to be exactly what a reader might want for her, except with it comes the knowledge that Ruth won't be able to cope and that her instinctive bid for release from Frida's grip will end in tears. This is a book about power and dependency, control and manipulation and in the midst a vulnerable and fragile elderly person.
And the tiger...well this isn't the nice Tiger that Comes to Tea, this is the fearsome animal of childhood nightmares, one that can permeate that fine veil between the conscious and the subconscious which can seem so flimsy at either end of life. I used to dream and firmly believe that there were all manner of jungle creatures under my bed, for which the Tinker blamed too much watching of Armand and Michaela Denis on TV, and I daresay I shall dream and believe it again eventually. But Ruth's nightmare is terrifyingly real and much more like the evil of Blake's tiger, and the more I read The Tyger from Songs of Innocence and Experience the deeper its resonance with the book, which I have of course now finished in double quick time...
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Of course it slowly dawns on the reader what the 'tiger' is, but as Ruth's memory shifts and drifts, much like the sand that surrounds and seems to constantly invade her home, the fear grows exponentially with Frida's power over her.
For the compus mentis reader this becomes addictive yet abject edge-of-the seat torture to witness, but I was too committed to Ruth to surrender. Early on I started to write the sort of plots and endings in my imagination that would make me happy for Ruth, because the sense of powerlessness is profound. The atmosphere of foreboding is acute, and I was almost willing Ruth's wandering neurones to miraculously join up again, for the lacunae in her brain to patch over, so that she could make sense of what was happening in her home and seek help.
Whether Fiona McFarlane wrote the ending I wanted... well in the end she wrote the best one I think...mine were nice but Fiona's was ultimately much better, so not another word from me, but if you fancy reading a brilliant and gripping debut novel then I would get The Night Guest on reserve at the library soon, because once word gets out there might be a very long waiting list.